Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Sixth-Avery Hays

The Sixth-Avery Hays

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 353
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2013
Novel

Welcome to the gaslit, cobblestoned streets of Paris, 1910. Florbela Sarmentos, 21, knows what she wants: art, romance, and to free her father from the prison of Portugal's despotic King Manuel II. Born in Lisbon, educated in London and at a painting academy in Cherbourg, France, the cosmopolitan Florbela moves to Paris and takes up residence in the wildly bohemian enclave of La Ruche, there to pursue a creative life. Some of the yet-to-be-discovered artists living in her building are Diego Rivera, Amedeo Modigliani and Marc Chagall. By day she paints, and by night she attends parties with the residents of La Ruche, who introduce her to collectors and creative spirits in Paris's fabled Sixth Arrondissement. Along the way, Florbela attracts several hot-headed admirers, two of whom become so inflamed with jealousy that they become each other's deadly enemies

Ok, usually I do not have patience for books reveling in the Parisian bohemian scene mainly because it all always seems too idealized for words-careful constructions of a myth of an artistic lifestyle and a harkening to a golden age. However, Hays really recreates this (still mythical) world in lush, lovely detail. Perhaps it's that even as the protagonist meets all the major artists of the 1910s (Marc Chagall, Diego Rivera, etc), she is not a 'Mary Sue'-she is not magically also an amazing artist. (Though as a side gripe: how come in such books, people arrive in a new city and immediately know where to get their art supplies? I've been in Salonika for two months (and I've been here before) and I'm still looking for linoleum.) Perhaps, it's the small sub(?)-plot of the overthrow of King Manuel II that Florbela is involved in that tempers the idealist leanings of Paris. I don't know how Hays managed it but I enjoyed the recreation of a period where idealists could be communist and revolution seemed around the corner and the prose conveyed an enthralling and seductive optimism that suspended my usually cynical nature. I really enjoyed the larger than life characters traipsing through Florbela's studio.

Florbela is both a rational and warm character who is easy to like (and thus the legion of suitors is not strange seeming). Her stubborness to pursue the life she chooses is quite modern but she also shoulders her responsibilities (to her imprisoned father) in a timeless self-sacrifice as necessary. The Portuguese and Parisian plotlines dance each other becoming more or less important with physical proximity so that if Florbela's in Paris, it's Paris you're in and vice versa (though Portugal is not as well realized). The thriller aspect is light and subtle until the climax of the novel which makes it seem even more thriller-like by contrast. A pleasurable read.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Disappearance of Lizzy Ross-Jessica Schein

The Disappearance of Lizzy Ross-Jessica Schein

the facts
satisfaction: side/down
pages: 120
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2013
Novella (Series)

Mimi Lerner and Lizzy Ross have been best friends since high school began and now, as seniors, they've made big plans together—from a trip to the Bahamas only months away to going to college the following year and ruling it like they do high school. But when Lizzy goes MIA after a party Mimi throws at a posh Manhattan hotel, everything is suddenly up in the air and Mimi must face facts: Lizzy Ross may not be the girl she knew, and the life she thought she'd have is going in a very different direction. 

What an incredibly spoiled protagonist! It was the point, I know, but I really didn't care for it. I mean, I finished the novella (grateful for its short length) and was hit with the question of “what was the point of that?”. There's no resolution and I now know it's the beginning of a trilogy which makes it all a bit more hard to understand. Why start the trilogy with such an unrelateable character that made the book seem a bit like the cry of The Rich Have Problems Too! That is a message, I am wholly uninterested in hearing as it has no originality and is incredibly, unreflectively privileged in a way guaranteed to make those without such privilege see red. This book was essentially page after page of Mimi moaning about her next fix or about her twisted relationship. I gave it credit for really bringing to life a character I had such strong feelings of hate for but in the end, I have no idea what the purpose of this was.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Idea of Perfection-Kate Grenville

The Idea of Perfection-Kate Grenville

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 401
gender: F
nationality: Australia
year: 1999
Novel 

Harley Savage is a plain woman, a part-time museum curator and quilting expert with three failed marriages and a heart condition. Douglas Cheeseman is a shy, gawky engineer with jug-handle ears, one marriage gone sour, and a crippling lack of physical courage. They meet in the little Australian town of Karakarook, where Harley has arrived to help the town build a heritage museum and Douglas to demolish the quaint old Bent Bridge. From the beginning they are on a collision course until the unexpected sets them both free.

I enjoyed this novel-the coming together of two self-conscious awkward people was sometimes a bit too realistic but handled very well. I really enjoyed the way the contrasts worked-two people damaged deeply by an upbringing coming together contrasted with a perfectionist, somewhat self centred woman destroying herself- to make the overall messsage clear: Perfection is in the imperfections. I also really enjoyed the use of concrete as a metaphor to demonstrate the importance of both strength and flexibility-something I'd not read before. The book feels a bit stark-the understated prose is as unflinching on the sun blasting down on its setting. It made the personal, the not-usually voiced self-consciousness of the unsure truly ring out and stand out. You're thrown into this unforgiving landscape of sun, broad expanses of panorama, and the insecure minds which have time to dwell in the lifestyle of a small, isolated town.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

That Touch of Ink-Diane Vallere

That Touch of Ink-Diane Vallere

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 281
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2013
Novel (series)

When interior decorator Madison Night receives a five thousand dollar bill in the mail, she knows it's a message from her past. But when she discovers a corpse while trying to learn of the bill's value, Madison suspects her former lover wants more than a reconciliation. His actions belie his intentions, and even a gallon of daisy yellow paint can't hide the writing on the wall. Madison follows a circuit of rare dollars and common sense and discovers a counterfeit operation, a jealous lover, and the true value of her independence.

I feel like I must first start with a disclaimer statement. If you think people who live a vintage lifestyle, dealing in antiques and dressing according to the ideals of a 'golden age', are annoying, you will not tolerate this book. I personally do not like the entire vintage lifestyle and certainly hate 1960s-1970s style but I have a tolerance for those who do as long as they're analytical about the social constraints as well which thankfully Vallere's main character is.

I read around the sometimes too detailed vintage lifestyle indicators and found I really enjoyed the underlying story. It was a complicated mystery that got resolved in a messy way so that felt right. The heroine does not do things that seem too stupid nor is she superhumanly strong which is kind of a rare character to find. She is merely human and as such a very well written character. The plot races a bit but doesn't hesitate to calm down a bit without lagging. The love interests (all a thousand of them, it sometimes seemed) are a bit two dimensional but the mystery/thriller aspects are so well handled I forgave that. Overall, a pleasing mystery to read.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Red Chrysanthemum-Henry F. Mazel

Red Chrysanthemum-Henry F. Mazel

the facts
satisfaction: up/side
pages: 179
gender: M
nationality: USA
year: 2013
Novella

Alexander Rada doesn’t want to be called Alexander, or Alex for that matter -- Rada will do just fine. It’s the summer of 1945, and army Lieutenant Rada has just arrived in Tokyo to witness the official surrender of Japan to the Allied Forces on the deck of the battleship Missouri. Rada has a history. He was a cop in L.A. before the war. A disgraced cop. Along the way, he learned to speak Japanese, and now he’s working at GHQ as a translator for General MacArthur. To almost everyone’s surprise, Rada is transferred to the military police to stop an assassination of a top communist. And the thing is, Rada just hates communists. He finds himself attached to a Japanese partner working for the Occupation forces -- and even more attached to a unique, beautiful Japanese woman. Love is in the air, and Rada is bound to mess it up.

Let's be frank, when I started this I wasn't sure I would be reading it through to the end because there was just something about the style of the writing that failed to grab me but I looked at the slimness and pushed through. The story itself just scooped me up and transported me away from my reader's skepticism, suspended my belief, and I ended up speeding right along. I mean, Rada is just not very likeable for me and so I didn't care about him. And the details seemed a bit light on the ground. While Mazel describes the aftermath of the war on Tokyo, he does so through the entirely self-centered viewpoint of Rada who doesn't seem to care about the city. Rada instead engages into exoticism-seeing the Japanese women as objects; an attitude I tire of in less than a minute and thus I could not enjoy the novel as much. Perhaps Mazel wrote it too well.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Pray for us Sinners-Peter S. Fischer

Pray for Us Sinners-Peter S. Fischer

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 248
gender: M
nationality: USA
year: 2013 
Novel (series)

Joe finds himself in Quebec but it's no vacation. Alfred Hitchcock is shooting a suspenseful thriller called "I Confess" and Montgomery Clift is playing a priest accused of murder. A marriage made in heaven? Hardly. They have been at loggerheads since Day One and to make matters worse their feud is spilling out into the newspapers. When vivacious Jeanne D'Arcy, the director of the Quebec Film Commission volunteers to help calm the troubled waters, Joe thinks his troubles are over but that was before Jean got into a violent spat with a former lover and suddenly found herself under arrest on a charge of first degree murder. Guilty or not guilty? Half the clues say she did it, the other half say she is being brilliantly framed.

From the title I really expected a different type of book but I was pleased to note that it is a Hitchcock reference that was in alignment with the film noir style of the book. It is like a blast from the past of a book that felt like a homage to the mystery sleuths of the film industry. That is set within the film industry with the sort of details an insider knows really adds another level to the development of atmosphere. The mystery itself is kind of fun (you know, clue like) with an emphasis on story telling. The entire book is well wrought with a pleasant pace and a resolution straight from the old school. Excellent for fans of the classics.
And after all, everyone is fascinated with Hollywood's auteur Hitchcock right?

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Dream of Time-Nancy J. Price

Dream of Time-Nancy J. Price

the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 472
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2013
Novel

"Each night, when Robin drifts off to sleep, she finds herself dreaming about the life of a woman in the Victorian age. She soon realizes it's not a dream at all, but she is truly slipping into San Francisco's past. While living two lives -- one as a mom in the modern day, the other as a proper young lady at the turn of the century -- she discovers how she's being sent back to a bygone era is only the first mystery. A much more important question is why she's there"

I'm of two minds about this novel.
I loved the unusual premise-living two lives through time travel while asleep. I was excited by the possibilities of it all. Adding a mystery pumped up the complication of the plot and kept me intrigued by all the twists and turns. The Victorian era was well researched and Price inserts some lesser known details and seems to have seriously considered the household differences between our society and the Victorians.
However, the main character seemed almost too young to have even thought about having two kids. Maybe it's my own youth but she makes somewhat baffling decisions and seems a bit flighty. Then there was an element of wish fulfillment-she too easily shrugged off the mores of Victorian society and replaced them with a thoroughly modern sensibility and was still taken seriously-she was definitely having her cake and eating it too. The writing style was a bit too unpolished with all these pop culture references that ironically make me feel like the book will not age well. Finally, there's the love interest who is too modern for a man who grew up in 1900-I mean, it was almost too easy.
Yet, despite all my objections I still enjoyed it quite a bit.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Obstacles to Young Love-David Nobbs

Obstacles to Young Love-David Nobbs

the facts
satisfaction: side/down
pages: 422
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 2010
Novel

From one of the greatest comedic writers of a generation comes a story of love, faith and taxidermy. 'Three mighty obstacles threaten the burgeoning love of childhood sweethearts Timothy Pickering and Naomi Walls. They are Steven Venables, a dead curlew and God.'

Oh Nobbs, I've tried, I've tried to like you as a writer-so many people tell me how much they enjoy your books but I can't. Where to start? The predictable, the painfully predictable, plot? The dull, almost trite writing style? The more I think about it, the more I want to change this book's rating to just down. I spent most of the book being like OH! GET ON WITH IT! Because really? More than 10 'coincidences', oh wow, it was meant to be! Well, obviously.
Ergh, I have better books on my to-read list...though I also have worse so my conclusion is just ambivalence.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Baghdad Solitaire-Leslie Cockburn

Baghdad Solitaire-Leslie Cockburn

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 351
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2013
Novel

in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, love and friendship are as uncertain as the shifting battle lines of the civil war. Lee McGuinness, a trauma surgeon on a humanitarian mission, is also on a personal quest: to find her companion-in-arms, Martin Carrigan, who has disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Has he been kidnapped for ransom? Or is he a traitor to his country, running arms to the insurgents? In search of someone - and something - to believe in, Lee must navigate a wilderness of mirrors in which greed, lies, and brutality are found among allies and enemies alike.

This is a scorching, blistering thriller set against a painfully all-too-believable backdrop of utterly corrupt and mismanaged 'reconstruction' we all dreaded was happening in Iraq. Cockburn has such an eye for detail that really brings to mind how damaged everything was in a way that actually manages to be rather even-handed. It was hard to really note the fiction in the story as it as written in a narrative style that brings the situation alive. Her main poetic licence was Laela who may have been a bit of a heavy-handed symbol of the civilization bulldozed and killed through cancer (survived the bombs falling but it's the aftermath that Iraq will be dealing with forever since the half life is in millions of years) but she ended up breaking my heart anyway. This is not a book about character development, it is a book about a country devastated by war and profiteering.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Alienated-Melissa Landers

Alienated-Melissa Landers

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 354
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2014
Novel, YA series

Two years ago, the aliens made contact. Now Cara Sweeney is going to be sharing a bathroom with one of them. Handpicked to host the first-ever L'eihr exchange student, Cara thinks her future is set. Not only does she get a free ride to her dream college, she'll have inside information about the mysterious L'eihrs that every journalist would kill for. Cara's blog following is about to skyrocket.
 

I really enjoyed this well written YA with a fairly unusual premise-pitting a dystopian (alien) world against our imperfect world. Gripping in that it answers the question what we'd be offering a 'higher' species but it is a bit slower than other YA series in the same genre. Nevertheless, I read it essentially in one go, almost resenting interruptions since it is easy to be drawn into the all too realistic worry that bigots or xenophobes would win the day and ruin it for the rest of us.

As usual, for YA, the romance is a bit iffy (because it is so foreshadowed) mainly because it creates a few unnecessary plotholes about the nature of the alien society. It kind of irks me that such plotholes happened but I hope the next in the series will plug them back up. Cara, the main human protagonist, is a bit too mature with the almost mythic strength one almost expects from YA. Another minor nitpick is that she was part of her public school's debate society as I was once and there are incorrect details about the form of debate but that is minor. In short, I am looking forward to the next in the series.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Children of the Jacaranda Tree-Sahar Deljani

Children of the Jacaranda Tree-Sahar Deljani


the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 287
gender: F
nationality: Iran
year: 2013
novel

Neda is born in Tehran’s Evin Prison, where her mother is allowed to nurse her for a few months before the arms of a guard appear at the cell door one day and, simply, take her away. In another part of the city, three-year-old Omid witnesses the arrests of his political activist parents from his perch at their kitchen table, yogurt dripping from his fingertips. More than twenty years after the violent, bloody purge that took place inside Tehran’s prisons, Sheida learns that her father was one of those executed, that the silent void firmly planted between her and her mother all these years was not just the sad loss that comes with death, but the anguish and the horror of murder.

A bittersweet history of Iran written in a poetic style. Ranging from the 1980s with the prison stories that would become the secrets of the 2000s, it explores how various situations in past would arise and impact the future, our present. Constantly asking the question: Can there a future with such a past? Going from character to character in a varied range of situations and life circumstances, this book feels like a microcosm of society evoking emotions ranging from despair and death to hope and renewal. It is an excellent exploration of the scars of history.
However, it is a debut novel that suffered a bit from seeing the forest without the trees. The characters are a bit two dimensional at times, they are not fully realized which makes discerning relationships between all the people a bit of a head scratcher at times which is further exacerbated by an extremely jumpy organization of flashbacks and different points in the present. In a way, this is more of a collection of vignettes rather than a novel proper but Deljani's lovely prose kept me going. I look forward to more from her.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Paradise Trees-Linda Huber

The Paradise Trees-Linda Huber

the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 266
gender: F
nationality: UK
year: 2013
Novel

The Paradise Trees is a compelling suspense novel, written in an engaging and pacey style. Linda’s powerful characterisation is inspired by her work with neurological patients, and the book is written with an intense realism that powers the narrative.

I'm two minds about this book. It was a good thriller. You have a deranged murderer and a woman and her daughter marked as his victims. There's a decent if a bit sudden romantic plotline. There're red herrings as to who the murderer is which kept me reading. But despite all this there were such flaws I cannot ignore them. The red herrings seem a bit contrived and are not as subtly worked as I prefer them to be. There was a bit too much simplicity in the way that you were supposed to be guessing which of the choices was the killer. Then there was the style which was second person, present tense which is a perspective I really rarely enjoy. Then there was Alicia-like, she constantly reiterates, over and over, that she wants her daughter, Jenny, to have the best summer ever. But why? Why this desperation that Jenny have a good summer. I mean, yes it's natural to want your kid to enjoy their life, that's the beauty of childhood but Alicia is neurotic about it which made me wonder why? Was the last summer horrible? Why is she so guilty? If she had gone on about only once in awhile, I would've been fine and attributed it to Jenny's negligent father but it's more like once every 25 pages.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Inconvenient Indian-Thomas King

An Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America-Thomas King

the facts
satisfaction: Up
pages: 268
gender: M
nationality: USA (Cherokee)
year: 2013
Non-fiction

The Inconvenient Indian is at once a “history” and the complete subversion of a history—in short, a critical and personal meditation that the remarkable Thomas King has conducted over the past 50 years about what it means to be “Indian” in North America.

It's unfortunately difficult for me to obtain King outside of the US so this is my first King and it's non-fiction not the fiction he's known for. However, there is such a distinct voice that I presume is King and he's everywhere in this book. I thought I had a decent grasp of Native American history but I was surprised at just how many treaties have been violated and how Canada has repeated so many of the US's mistakes (why Canada, why?!). Yet despite the anger, King inserts so much humor that you want to keep on reading. This never feels like a slog, it feels like a story that is being told (but one that is real). King tackles history from the individual story to the tribal level to the nation to the federal level without ever losing sight of his objective. There is a wryness that is not unwarranted. 

I want everyone to read this. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

All is Silence-Manuel Rivas

All is Silence-Manuel Rivas

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 249
gender: M
nationality: Spain (Galicia)
year: 2013
Novel in translation

 Fins and Brinco are best friends, and they both adore the wild and beautiful Leda. The three young friends spend their days exploring the dunes and picking through the treasures that the sea washes on to the shores of Galicia. One day, as they are playing in the abandoned school on the edge of the village, they come across treasure of another kind: a huge cache of whisky hidden under a sheet. But before they can exploit their discovery a shot rings out, and a man wearing an impeccable white suit and panama hat enters the room. That day they learn the most important lesson of all, that the mouth is for keeping quiet.

Well, I love Rivas so I'm always going to be biased but I definitely enjoyed All is Silence despite its flaws. Everyone always seems so surprised when I mention how big an enterprise smuggling is in Galicia but the nooks and crannies of the ria systems really lend themselves to smuggling and thus a lot of the corruption in the region is based on the sea. Rivas is talking about a proper mafia-style organization (which is before my time) whose motto is the mouth is made for silence. Childhood friends are pitted against each other as adults since they interpreted the motto differently. Though, as usual, poetic but precise, I do have to say that Rivas's language does not feel as well formed as it does in his other novels and the transition between the childhood friends and adult enemies is abrupt but this is still a polished novel that is Galician through and through.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Azazeel-Youseff Ziedan

Azazeel-Youseff Ziedan

the facts
satisfaction: Up
pages: 311
gender: M
nationality: Egypt
year: 2009
Novel in translation

 Ostensibly the memoirs of a fifth-century doctor-monk named Hypa, whose scrolls bearing witness to a period of Christian turmoil are uncovered in 1994, its depictions of an aggressive, pagan-purging Bishop Cyril offended some members of the Coptic Church so gravely that they filed lawsuits.

This was my season of historical fiction. However, Azazeel is historical fiction from an era I've never heard from. Hypa is a Coptic monk during the period of Christianity in which the church was splitting. Pagans still exist (though horrible things are happening) but Roman/Orthodox divide didn't. Having never really thought too much about the real individual living in this strange turbulent period, I found myself really getting sucked into it. I mean, Hypa is written in a way that he is all-too-human (a bit modern in his forthrightness, I thought there was no mistaking this for 'truth') and it proves engrossing. He is a man far from home (Egypt to Syria- no small distance by camel/walking!) unsure of how to proceed which is a timeless situation. To experience it through his eyes against his front seat view of the church schisms and human cost of faith was incredible and almost devastating. I felt my heart move and almost missed how the language at times becomes a bit too high-flying.
 
Put simply, I loved it!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

10 Novels to Define Spain

SavidgeReads shared his challenge to make a list of 10 books in which he defined the UK, his partner defined the USA. He invited his readers to make their own lists defining their own countries and I thought, oh, it'd be easy to come up with at least 10 titles from Spain.

I have realized some things in the process of this list:
-Most of my older Spanish reads are actually poetry. Which actually surprises me since I read so little poetry comparatively nowadays.
-I have a heavy bias towards literature dealing with the trauma of the Civil War and Franco.
-Way too many of the classic Spanish authors are men. I need to find more women!

Here follows my list of 11-I made it 11 because Don Quixote has to be included but it's so obvious!

Don Quixote-Cervantes
The famous, the untouchable-no list about Spain can miss out Cervantes. Do I have to even talk about it? If you read Spanish, do try the 17th century version for a great insight in how language changes and evolves.

Into the Wilderness-Manuel Rivas
My roots spring from Galicia and while Cela is our most famous novelist, I just can't get behind the tremendismo genre of violence and shock value; I much prefer the picturesque phrasing of Galicia's poetry. This is a book that evokes the classic poetry while staying very modern. Blending mythology and real life, this is a book that feels Galician with its mountains and craggy coasts where crows may be knights.

Never to Return-Esther Tusquets
Written by a formidable force in the Catalan publishing world, this is a quintessentially female novel. Exploring how psychoanalysis may not help a women, this is an exploration of a neurotic woman desperate to be heard.

Obabakoak-Bernardo Atxaga
Most people seem to immediately think of the ETA when they think of the Basques and Atxanga, their most famous author, certainly has written a number of books touching on those topics but I prefer Obabakoak. It's a series of short stories about a small town named Obaba. It's quirky and enjoyable while retaining Atxanga's tendency to poke a stick where most people would not want to be pushed.

Blood Wedding-Frederico Garcia Lorca
Not a novel but no list defining Spanish literature can leave off Lorca whose influence has spread throughout every arena of art. (I particularly adore Saura's flamenco adaptation.) Most of his plays are accessible and resplendent with the tastes and styles of the Generation of '27 but I like Blood Wedding most-its rural setting and timeless feel endear it to me.

3 Exemplary Novels-Miguel de Unamuno
Actually not novels but rather novellas, Unamuno was one of the most influential thinks in Spain. Evoking Cervantes, Unamuno brings his philosophical light on the inner struggles between reason and faith and how those bear upon interpersonal relationships.

Holy Innocents-Miguel Dilibes
A more modern novel set in a rural Castillian village where the local politics, the caciques, are ruthlessly destroying the inhabitants. This is corruption at its base and lowest level.

Soldiers of Salamis-Javier Cercas
Blending truth and fiction, Cercas details the ordeals of a prisoner of war during the Civil War. This is a story about how heroes are made (and how they don't really exist) and what creates the truth. Necessary book if you're interested in the Civil War.

Carpenter's Pencil-Manuel Rivas
Ok, those who know me have raised your eyebrows, yes there are two Rivas books on here but this here is his defining book. Directly about how war destroys lives and the traumas of the Falangist regime.

Time of Silence-Luis Martin Santos
A great story about the lack of efficacy under Franco's regime, this is considered one of the greatest literary novels of the 20th century. It was banned when it came out-partially because it's not really a realist novel and partly because of its blend of sex, death, and philosophy. If you want a hint of life under Franco's later years...this is your novel.

Nada-Carmen Laforet
Elegantly written, Laforet is exploring the traumas of post-Civil War Barcelona in a very understated way. It is at its heart a novel about mental illness and the coming of age of its protagonist. Between the lines are the currently highly oppressive politics but Laforet makes the whole novel seem very real since this focuses on the everyday strength of Andrea who observes how it may be easier to endure great setbacks rather than the everyday grind. Not to be missed!

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Midnight in Havana-Peggy Blair

Midnight in Havana-Peggy Blair

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 344
gender: F
nationality: Canada
year: 2002
Novel

In beautiful, crumbling Old Havana, Canadian detective Mike Ellis hopes the sun and sand will help save his troubled marriage. He doesn't yet know that it's dead in the water - much like the little Cuban boy last seen begging the Canadian couple for a few pesos. For Inspector Ricardo Ramirez, head of the Major Crimes Unit of the Cuban National Revolutionary Police, finding his prime suspect isn't a problem - Cuban law is. He has only seventy-two hours to secure an indictment and prevent a vicious killer from leaving the island. But Ramirez has his own troubles. He's dying of the same dementia that killed his grandmother...

I don't know about you but I always expect the worse when I read books set in Havana by foreigners. I don't know what it is about Havana, there are so many other Cuban cities to set stories of corruption, decadence, and abuse in but foreigners always seem to choose Havana. And it's a Havana I've never seen-nothing like the Havana I visited and walked through and nothing like the Havana my mother grew up in. I've abandoned so many books about/set in Havana that if I had a dollar...
It's a testament to Blair that my usual qualms did not affect me. I was pleasantly surprised. This was a Havana full of Cubans I could believe. It was a book that definitely happened in Cuba with proper specifics without relying on the rather dull old tropes that cause me abandon so many books. I found the Canadian angle a bit of a stretch but it occurs to me that I know little about Canadian-Cuban relations so even that didn't bother me. The parts in Cuba, the detective's investigation were quality. They were written well without shock value in a mild thriller style. In fact, this is more a mystery than thriller. But the thriller parts were so well handled that I really enjoyed it all as a whole as the threads of the story are delicately woven together.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Gray Area-Will Self

Gray Area-Will Self

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 336
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 1994
Short Story Collection

The latest collection of short stories by Will Self explores a world so saturated with sensory stimulation its inhabitants are immune to it. In the minds of his characters, vastly complicated interior worlds and conspiracies are formed as protection against the monotony and emptiness of life.

After working my way through Umbrella, I discovered Gray Area on a dusty shelf and decided to return to his short stories, surely they were not like umbrella but rather were full of intense wit. Like The Quantity Theory of Insanity, this is an extraordinary group of stories. They are set in very diverse universes ranging from our own to a dystopian smog choked town to an equally dystopian Company in stasis to Busner (yes, Umbrella's Zack) in a drug trial of Inclusion. These universes are tied together with gossamer threads of post-modernist witty disconnect between man and his environment. You are left with the sense that if you were to read it all over again, you'd find more connections between the disparate worlds. It's really quite impressive how fully realized each story was with full character development.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Murder in the Tower of Happiness-M.M. Tawfik

Murder in the Tower of Happiness-M.M. Tawfik

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 340
gender: M
nationality: Egypt
year: 2003
Novel in translation (author's own)

When the first armchair smashed into the asphalt, Sergeant Ashmouni was at his usual spot on the median of the Nile Corniche, trapped by the road's twin currents turbulently flowing forth to Maadi and back to Old Cairo. He was wiping the sweat away from his eyes with his worn out sleeve - and in the process adding a new stain to his white traffic-police uniform - when surprise from the thunderous impact catapulted him into the fast lane of the side of the road closest to the Nile.' Thus opens this fast-paced city thriller laced with dry humor that takes us inside Borg al-Saada-'Tower of Happiness,' one of the luxury high-rises planted like alien bodies amid the fields along the Nile south of Cairo - and inside the sordid lives and lavish lifestyles of its super-rich and famous denizens.The naked, strangled body of Ahlam, a beautiful young actress, is discovered in one of the elevators, and as the police investigation gets under way, we meet many of the tower's strange characters

This was a whirlwind of a novel I'm not sure I understood entirely. This was kind of like Thursday Night Widows for an Egyptian setting but much more focused upon the murder itself from three views- a (female) journalist, a sergeant implicated in it, and a 'psychic' benefitting from it. But that doesn't even really begin to give you a sense of the whole thing as this was also a ghost story, full of thwarted love stories, random side stories, corruption, and the value of innocence. I was left wondering, sometimes, whether I enjoyed Thursday Night Widows so much because it was a culture I could recognize and Murder in the Tower of Happiness was so much more work because I have no personal view into Egyptian (or Arabic for that matter) culture. The actual whodunit is resolved relatively early and that was understandable-it was the supernatural that really threw me for a loop.

This is an ambitious novel full of twists and turns, secrets, with a large cast of characters that manages to seem successful and unsuccessful at the same time. The details are great and the scenes are enjoyable but the overall picture is a bit too convoluted. The story devolves or perhaps, rather, moves away from narrative (which everyone knows is so tiresome) into a sort of prose poetry culminating with a related but separate short story to serve as resolution creating a mishmosh of styles that don't completely jive together. Still definitely worth a read.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Reluctant Widow-Georgette Heyer

Reluctant Widow-Georgette Heyer

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 278
gender: F
nationality: UK
year: 1946
Novel

When Elinor Rochdale boards the wrong coach, she ends up not at her prospective employer's home but at the estate of Eustace Cheviot, a dissipated and ruined young man on the verge of death.

This is my first Heyer despite seeing some of my favorite book bloggers raving about her. It was always just...I really don't read much in the romance genre. However, this will not be my last Heyer.

In fact, I was just blown away by the skill inherent in crafting a novel that could have been written in 1890. The details, the tone, and the plot construction are pitch perfect but with a slightly more modern feel. (I loved Austen to bits and pieces when I was younger but now find her to be a bit too “oh my lord” for my tastes now.) The plot is interesting and atypical in my usual reading choices. Elinor is a great character, headstrong, yes, but not a schemer as so often it seems Regency ladies are. She instead wants to live an honest life but all these things keep happening! It was at times a bit too much peak after peak after peak of excitement but written in a way that you still want to read. The ending, however, kind of felt quite rushed. It was almost like Heyer realized 10 pages from the end that oops, she was actually supposed to be writing a romance novel instead of the excellent whodunit she'd written and tacked it in at the end-which actually worked well for me, that was my least anticipated bit.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Lighthouse-Alison Moore

Lighthouse-Alison Moore

the facts
satisfaction: up/side
pages: 182
gender: F
nationality: UK
year: 2012
Novel

On the outer deck of a North Sea ferry stands Futh, a middle-aged and newly separated man, on his way to Germany for a restorative walking holiday. After an inexplicably hostile encounter with a hotel landlord, Futh sets out along the Rhine. As he contemplates an earlier trip to Germany and the things he has done in his life, he does not foresee the potentially devastating consequences of things not done. "The Lighthouse", Alison Moore's first novel, tells the tense, gripping story of a man trying to find himself, but becoming lost.

Entirely melancholy in tone, this book feels longer than its 182 pages as it is entirely literary. The main protagonist, Futh, is an aimless fluttering character, lost in this world and unable to cope with change and loss whose fall is portended from almost the first page. This book is driven by this character study of a man who is...I mean, you felt for him-he was so vulnerable. He was sad, socially awkward but he was also too socially awkward (childhood trauma and a lifetime of hiding from his problems) and he wasn't particularly likeable. I ended up having more feelings about the main woman, Ester, in the book who I also didn't particularly like (her motivations were entirely too opaque for my liking) as the mutual emotional abuse in that marriage was quite painful (and echoed Futh's traumatic childhood). This lack of caring would not have been a bad thing but it made the novel lost its spark once it was obvious what the ending was going to be. Since I felt nothing about the characters and had no hope of knowing why they were doing what they were doing, it was only the prose that kept me going.

May have been the point? So I'm on the fence about the story itself but the style is lovely. I really enjoyed the metaphors Moore sprinkled about in there and the way she crafts her sentences in such an economical yet lyrical way is skilled. The tight structure of the writing shows exquisite crafting and the symbolism ranges from the obvious to the subtle. Even the style is light despite the dark and sad story.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Marriage Proposal-Célestine Hitiura Vaite

The Marriage Proposal (Breadfruit)-Célestine Hitiura Vaite

the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 339
gender: F
nationality: Tahiti
year: 2000
Novel

Materena Mahi likes movies about love. And after fourteen years with Pito, the father of her three children, she wants a ring on her finger and a framed wedding certificate on the wall. But Pito does not like movies about love. He likes movies with action and as little talking as possible. Pito thinks that when you give a woman a ring and a wedding certificate she's going to start acting like she's the boss. 'Eh', he insists, 'it's the rope around the neck'. So when a drunken Pito finally proposes, Materena thinks she wouldn't mind becoming a madame. Before long every relative is giving her advice and Materena is finding it hard to juggle her family, her job and the plans for the wedding. And it doesn't help that the groom-to-be seems to have forgotten his proposal. Suddenly, she's not even sure that she really wants that ring on her finger after all.
 
Written in a fairly simplistic but entirely rhythmic style, calling this a novel is perhaps misleading. This is storytelling-best enjoyed aloud. I found myself reading out some of the chapters and enjoyed those the best. Did I say chapters? I meant anecdotes. The story itself is not really the important part of this book, the journey, the various anecdotes you read along the way is the real meat of the book. You meet various quirky members of the extended family, listen to Materena, the main protagonist, balance her wants against the trials and tribulations of her family in a way that rings true. (I myself have secretly amended plans after listening to people tell me stories.) This is an unusual style to find in print and for that I appreciate the book even if it got a bit annoying by the end (it was like life in a small village for me, nice but not for long term). However, the book is light hearted and warm, like a welcome breeze.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Bring Up the Bodies-Hilary Mantel

Bring Up the Bodies-Hilary Mantel

the facts
satisfaction: Up
pages: 484
gender: F
nationality: UK
year: 2012
Novel, series

By 1535 Thomas Cromwell is Chief Minister to Henry VIII, his fortunes having risen with those of Anne Boleyn, the king’s new wife. But Anne has failed to give the king an heir, and Cromwell watches as Henry falls for plain Jane Seymour. Cromwell must find a solution that will satisfy Henry, safeguard the nation and secure his own career. But neither minister nor king will emerge unscathed from the bloody theatre of Anne’s final days.

Possibly one of the more talked about novels, I ended up reading this instead of Wolf Hall in a strange library moment. Oh well, no problem because I enjoyed this fantastically as a stand alone historical fiction. Oh my goodness, Cromwell is such a well crafted character-a strong man who has worked to get to where he is and thus is aggressive and a bit single minded but still sympathetic. Everything that happens feels real. I'm not actually a fan of the Tudor period but thanks to Mantel I'll definitely be interested in some of the more historical sources of information. This was just that good. Mantel treats her history delicately, avoiding over lyrical romanticism, which is definitely something I appreciate. To make the Tudor period seem so fresh and immediate despite the keywords we all associate with it takes such skill. It doesn't even seem predictable even though we know what the ending is going to be.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Hiatus

Ok, I seriously underestimated my ability to pack up my life, deal with emotional upheaval, move to a different country amidst paperwork problems, and post to this blog.

Yeah...about that. I am frantically reading the last of the books from the library and the books I own (so as to purge them in a week's time) and that leaves little time really to sit down and type out what I thought.

So, apologies but posts are temporarily suspended. Hopefully see you in October when I am sitting at a new desk in a new country and slightly less worried about the future.

In the meantime I am still active on my photography blog as I work through a backlog of a month spent on trains traveling to places few natives (not to mention tourists) go to but I did anyway lured by some stunning churches and manors. So keep an eye on mongoosenamedt.blogspot.com

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Book of Forgotten Crafts-ed. Felix, Ellis, Quinn

Book of Forgotten Crafts-ed. Felix, Ellis, Quinn

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 256
gender: M+F
nationality: UK
year: 2011
non fiction

This title reveals the fascinating history of British craftsmanship in a series of interviews with leading crafters at work in Britain today. Many crafts survive in the hands of just a few individuals whose rare skills date back as far as 1,000 years. They are part of our history, part of a past of craftsmanship, skill and attention to detail that most of us probably thought had vanished forever. It features such people as the trug maker, cricket bat maker, thatcher, hurdle maker and a rope maker. It also includes the mentors from the Mastercrafts series. "The Book of Forgotten Crafts" records and celebrates the best of these ancient crafts, before they disappear and, more importantly, to record the lives of the crafters themselves.

I was once described as someone with a foot squarely in tradition while being relentlessly modern. It struck me as a particularly apt description of the contrasts in my personality and hobbies. It is also probably why I'd enjoy a book like this so much. It offers you just enough information to understand what they're doing-something to intrigue you with some lovely photographs of the craftsperson at work.

Set up as a series of clear and fairly concise interviews with the last full time craftsmen (and craftswomen) who practice 'old fashioned' crafts, this is not a how to guide. This is a good thing, quite frankly, you'd not want to learn blacksmith from a book that also taught you bobbin lace making. Some of the crafts, I'd argue, are not at all forgotten as I've tried my hand at them (I'd also argue that there is an omission of handmade book binding if paper making was allowed in!) but some are crafts I've genuinely never heard of! Bee skeps indeed! Others I'd never really thought about as much and enjoyed the interview. I found myself really considering the different ways to create the ubiquitous stone wall found all over the island. I'd never realized there were two ways to do so until I read through that section. If you love fairly useless information like how many parts make up a wooden wheel, this is definitely the book for you.

In conclusion, I think I know now from who I want to buy my pair of clogs from!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Giving Up the Ghost-Hilary Mantel

Giving Up the Ghost-Hilary Mantel

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 252
gender: F
nationality: UK (England)
year: 2003
non-fiction, Memoir

 In postwar rural England, Hilary Mantel grew up convinced that the most improbable of accomplishments, including "chivalry, horsemanship, and swordplay," were within her grasp. Once married, however, she acquired a persistent pain that led to destructive drugs and patronizing psychiatry, ending in an ineffective but irrevocable surgery. There would be no children; in herself she found instead one novel, and then another.

Well, I really didn't expect that. I have to admit, this is my first Mantel read and so I knew nothing about her. I had no idea she has chronic health problems or grew up in Derbyshire or found hints for her novels in her own life. Often times in memoirs of people you don't know, you get a feeling of a presentation. This is what you'd expect of the generic writer, basketball player, or comedian. I felt none of that here. This is Mantel, telling you about the strange things in her life that have contributed to being her. It's not the events themselves (she refuses to tell you some of them) but the way she explores her reactions to them and how they've impacted her life. The title gives you a sense of what her tone is like. She regards things with a grim humor that verges on melancholic. This is her coming to grips with the ghost of what she could have become and such it is a not a smooth journey full of facts. There are jumps in time, blurry recollections, and self referential tangents and above all it is centred squared on Hilary Mantel-not her family, friends, lovers, or writing. I really enjoyed the writing itself-great musings and turns of phrase really showcase her skill even as she bares her insecurities to her own razor sharp analysis.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Space Between Us-Thrity Umrigar

The Space Between Us-Thrity Umrigar

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 321
gender: F
nationality: India
year: 2005
novel

Bhima, a 65-year-old slum dweller, has worked for Sera Dubash, a younger upper-middle-class Parsi woman, for years: cooking, cleaning and tending Sera after the beatings she endures from her abusive husband, Feroz. Sera, in turn, nurses Bhima back to health from typhoid fever and sends her granddaughter Maya to college. Sera recognizes their affinity: "They were alike in many ways, Bhima and she. Despite the different trajectories of their lives—circumstances... dictated by the accidents of their births—they had both known the pain of watching the bloom fade from their marriages." But Sera's affection for her servant wars with ingrained prejudice against lower castes. The younger generation—Maya; Sera's daughter, Dinaz, and son-in-law, Viraf—are also caged by the same strictures despite efforts to throw them off. In a final plot twist, class allegiance combined with gender inequality challenges personal connection, and Bhima may pay a bitter price for her loyalty to her employers.

I was always a bit worried this would descend into “women's lit” and be full of 'heartwarming affirmations of modern women.' This is my fault-and I must point out that I have nothing against the genre (and have enjoyed some) but it was not what I was in the mood for. Instead, I got what I was in the mood for: a realistic exploration of class.

These women are linked in various ways: long term acquaintance, shared histories of abuse, and shared worries about the next generation. That these women hold true affection for one another is clear from the beginning but there is something separating them, class. It is the elephant in the room that stops them from sharing furniture, it is the contrast of their homes, and it is the contrast of their resources. Class divides and isolates the women in this novel from each other and fails to offer ways to combat the patriarchal society in which they live. The book is, at times, harsh but effective and strong until the somewhat strange and out of tune last chapter. Don't let that stop you, Umrigar has a great writing style-somewhat lyrical, incorporates the Indian rhyme rhythm but not in a way that overwhelms the direct prose.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Feast of the Goat-Mario Vargas Llosa

Feast of the Goat-Mario Vargas Llosa

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 475
gender: M
nationality: Peru
year: 2001
novel, in translation

Haunted all her life by feelings of terror and emptiness, forty-nine-year-old Urania Cabral returns to her native Dominican Republic - and finds herself reliving the events of l961, when the capital was still called Trujillo City and one old man terrorized a nation of three million. Rafael Trujillo, the depraved ailing dictator whom Dominicans call the Goat, controls his inner circle with a combination of violence and blackmail. In Trujillo's gaudy palace, treachery and cowardice have become a way of life. But Trujillo's grasp is slipping. There is a conspiracy against him, and a Machiavellian revolution already underway that will have bloody consequences of its own. In this 'masterpiece of Latin American and world literature, and one of the finest political novels ever written' (Bookforum), Mario Vargas Llosa recounts the end of a regime and the birth of a terrible democracy, giving voice to the historical Trujillo and the victims, both innocent and complicit, drawn into his deadly orbit

This is an excellent book that sucks you in and leaves you with this tension deep in your bones. Llosa does an unusual thing-he makes a horrible dictator, Trujillo, a human without tempering his evil. Interspersed with the inside of the goat, Llosa explores his assassinators and his (fictional) minister's estranged daughter, Urania. Llosa really conveys the tension and irrationality that goverened the Dominican Republic in a way that undercuts any nostalgia one could possibly have (you end up wondering how could anyone be nostalgic for it).

In a society that uses sex as a weapon, Urania's story is invaluable to understand the gender injustices. Llosa also tackles class with the assassinators' varied motivations. In the occasionally dragging first half, there is a grim gallows humor (perfectly hispanic) about the whole enterprise that descends into pure horror as the novel turns almost cinematic and deeply gruesome as the regime's full costs come to light.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Britty Britty Bang Bang-Hugh Dennis

Britty Britty Bang Bang-Hugh Dennis

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages:287
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 2013
non fiction

Hugh Dennis has secretly been worrying about what being "British" meant for nearly a decade, ever since his friend Ardal O'Hanlon had told him in passing that he was the most British person he had ever met. Hugh was unclear whether he was being praised, teased, vaguely insulted, or possibly all three—because it has always been very difficult to know how to feel about being British. And then the London Olympics came along. They gave the world a gleaming new vision of Britain; a smiling Britain of achievement, a Britain responsible for leading the world into the modern era through the Agrarian and Industrial revolutions, a nation proud to embrace multiculturalism, individuality, and eccentricity. 

I expected wit, irreverence, and erudition from Hugh Dennis and I got it. Occasionally Dennis's jokes may blendin too well with the facts he presents so there's a little risk of misinformation but his rather clever additions slipped in here and there meant I chuckled almost without expecting it.The sections are loosely organized and full of arcane facts-the sort that you'd recall at the pub when some of the inevitable debates about sports occur. Dennis questions the foundations of many things British and gives you plausible answers. This is a great non fiction book as you spend your time learning enjoyably and without any sense of work. It never drags.

Let's be frank, it felt like a great episode of QI which makes Fry's endorsement on the cover rather fitting.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil-John Berendt

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil-John Berendt

the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 639
gender: M
nationality: USA
year: 1994
Non fiction, true crime

Shots rang out in Savannah's grandest mansion in the misty,early morning hours of May 2, 1981.  Was it murder or self-defense?  For nearly a decade, the shooting and its aftermath reverberated throughout this hauntingly beautiful city of moss-hung oaks and shaded squares.  John Berendt's sharply observed, suspenseful, and witty narrative reads like a thoroughly engrossing novel, and yet it is a work of nonfiction.  Berendt skillfully interweaves a hugely entertaining first-person account of life in this isolated remnant of the Old South with the unpredictable twists and turns of a landmark murder case. It is a spellbinding story peopled by a gallery of remarkable characters: the well-bred society ladies of the Married Woman's Card Club; the turbulent young redneck gigolo; the hapless recluse who owns a bottle of poison so powerful it could kill every man, woman, and child in Savannah; the aging and profane Southern belle who is the "soul of pampered self-absorption"; the uproariously funny black drag queen; the acerbic and arrogant antiques dealer; the sweet-talking, piano-playing con artist; young blacks dancing the minuet at the black debutante ball; and Minerva, the voodoo priestess who works her magic in the graveyard at midnight.  These and other Savannahians act as a Greek chorus, with Berendt revealing the alliances, hostilities, and intrigues that thrive in a town where everyone knows everyone else. 

Highly entertaining, it begins as a series of portraits of very interesting people and it is at that point that Berendt's writing shines. As you know, it's true crime (and I purposely kept myself in the dark) so you know one of these people will go on trial for murder and another will die. For the first half, I was content to simply get to know Savannah but at some points I got tired of Berendt putting himself in the story. There began to be a bit 'too pat'-he doesn't really succeed in making you understand why you're supposed to like the characters because in a way he's too concerned with making you like him. Anyhow, so the murder takes place and then the supernatural comes in and I just wasn't so sure how the reader was supposed to take it. There was a point, it seemed, to adding it in but Berendt didn't really help you to it. To be honest, I can't really recall much of the details of the trials because compared to the first half, the final half seems rushed and overshadowed.